11th Jan2018

‘Pandemic: Rising Tide’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Whilst the ingenuity of board game designers never ceases to amaze me, particularly when it comes to designing and integrating new mechanics with existing themes, the Pandemic series has been equally impressive in doing the opposite for the past few years. From the many variants and expansions of the base Pandemic game (including two seasons of the exceptional Pandemic: Legacy) to more elaborate variants such as 2016’s Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, this is a series that has repeatedly managed to take the base mechanic of an organically-spreading threat and apply it to various themes and alternative realities.

The latest theme to receive this treatment initially felt like the most mundane to me; and yet, Pandemic: Rising Tide actually offers some of the most nail-biting gameplay that I’ve experienced in the last few months. Set in The Netherlands during the latter decades of the 20th Century (some of the outfits look practically medieval, but a gigantic mobile phone that one of the characters is holding looks decidedly 1980’s to me) Rising Tide has re-imagined Pandemic’s usual spread of viruses to recreate flowing water.

The theme and setting are used to replicate the fact that large portions of The Netherlands are reclaimed from the sea, meaning that in many regions the land actually lies below sea level. To do this, Pandemic: Rising Tide replaces the usual “Infection Level” with a “Sea Level” track and instead of Outbreak cards, Storms are drawn from the player deck to ensure a constant and ever increasing threat level. The movement of water happens naturally based on the number of water cubes in adjacent regions and whether or not there are any dikes in place.

Dikes are represented by small wooden pieces and represent a wholly new addition to the Pandemic mechanic. Dikes are placed strategically on marked locations at the beginning of the game and then degraded (removed) by a specific deck as the game progresses. As you can probably guess, two of the actions available to players are those of pumping water out of flooded regions and then building dikes to protect any region that is free of water.

Other actions include building pumping stations (which pump one water cube each turn automatically) or moving using various options depending on which cards you have in hand. Special actions in Pandemic: Rising Tide include those such as pumping additional water cubes from adjacent regions, or moving other characters around the board much like in the other variants.

At the end of each action phase, players follow a set of simple rules to simulate water flowing. Whilst these rules are straightforward enough to begin with, the summary is that any region with three cubes in will flow into an adjacent region where there is no functional dike between the two. In the next region, players will place up to two cubes and then repeat the process in further adjoining regions, this time placing just one water cube. Within about twenty seconds of learning this rule, it felt immediately natural – to my mind even more so than the spread of disease in the core Pandemic games.

Like most other Pandemic games, Rising Tide features a number of possible variations in the box. For starters, players can vary the level of challenge by adding more Event and/or Storm cards into the player deck, but there are a couple of other rules that can be introduced. In the base game, players need only build each of four hydraulic structures at set locations, each of which costs five cards that match the colour of the region it is located in.

The main variant game introduces new, slightly randomised objectives and the inclusion of population cubes, which must be carefully built up and managed in the face of rising tides. Each region can only hold three cubes of both types, so should this limit be reached and the water still be flowing, population cubes must be moved to the Population Loss card. Lose five population and you lose the game.

At the base level, even though there is only one variety of threat (and actually perhaps it is exactly because there is only one variety of threat) Rising Tide is a little harder than base Pandemic. In the hardest mode (known as Heroic Master) Rising Tide is both unfair and in almost every way, impossible. At best, you’ll need to play flawlessly to win, but if the cards are against you, you’ll lose all the same. There are several options in-between however and my personal preference is for the Heroic Apprentice (which has a high number of Storm cards but a normal number of Objectives to complete.)

The link between theme and mechanics in Pandemic: Rising Tide is admirably tight and I have to say, it is one of the most organic games to learn and play that I’ve experienced in a while. That said, it has a few challenges that can’t be ignored, although relatively few of them relate to the way the game plays. Firstly, each of the many, many, many dikes that will be placed are represented by tiny, matchstick-like pieces that are a bit of a bind to setup and often, although they are straight, will be used to sit across wobbly or curved borderlines. They also move easily if the board is knocked, which is a minor thing but nonetheless a bit frustrating.

The board itself is also a bit convoluted and murky to look at. It features a mix of brown, orange, green and muted purple and although it is nicely stylised (and I love that it features Dutch place names) it’s a challenge to play on. Many regions are linked in strange ways and there are some large regions that join smaller ones across a broad spread (especially towards the bottom) which can make plotting the best route a bit frustrating. Minor knocks really, considering that the overall quality of the game is high – the card art is a particular highlight and the translucent water cubes are really cute as well.

Pandemic: Rising Tide can be played solo by using a couple of the available characters and at any player count, you’ll have no shortage of variant games and difficulty levels to choose from. As always in Pandemic games, Rising Tide is a cooperative only experience, so there’s no need for any of your friends to be singled out as the bad guy. The theme is also a lot more interesting than you think it might be – the constant flow of water and the degradation of dikes is a really compelling mechanic that has a frightening streak of realism running through it to increase the tension.

Thanks to its unique take on the constant (and literal) ebb and flow of water and the interesting and previously overlooked setting, combined with high variability and replay value at all player counts, I highly recommend Pandemic: Rising Tide. This is even more true because of the generally high component quality (even if I don’t like some of it, it’s all well made) considering the price point. The box is small and neat and it all packs away well, making the whole proposition a work of understated genius. With the exception of Legacy: Season One and Season Two, Rising Tide is my favorite Pandemic to date.

**** 4/5


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